Interview by Andrew Mefferd
In the June/July magazine, our cover story talked about how REKO rings are a new way to sell to your local community through a closed Facebook group. You can read that article here.
Though at the time of writing I could only find three REKO rings operating in North America, I knew there must be more. So at the end of the article we appealed for anyone doing a REKO in North America to get in touch with us, and I’m so glad Heather Anderson at Green Wagon Farm did.
If you’re not familiar with REKO rings, it’s explained in depth the cover story of the June/July 2020 GFM “REKO Ring: a new way to pre-sell online” which you can read here. Or, Green Wagon Farm has a good summary on their website, greenwagonfarm.com. Here’s their summary:
What is REKO?
REKO (RA-ko) is an acronym for the Swedish words, “Rejäl konsumtion” (“Reilua kuluttamista” in Finnish), meaning “fair consumption.” This Facebook-based sales model was started by a Finnish farmer in 2013 as a convenient way to connect to customers.
The aim of our REKO Market is to create a direct relationship between customers and small scale producers. Our ultimate goal is to create a market of fresh, healthy, and local food in a method that sustains ethical production values.
Join our Ada REKO Market Group or Holland REKO Market Group on Facebook and place your order through your favorite producer’s online store. From there, you will be able to pick up orders weekly at our designated pick-up locations and times.
Place your order from the products below and choose which pickup location you'll collect your goods from in the shipping options.
Ada REKO Market - The Community Church - Thursday 3-3:30PM (order by Wednesday, 4AM)
Holland REKO Market - Holland Town Center - Thursday 12-1PM (order by Wednesday, 4AM)
Our inventory is updated on Mondays and Thursdays of each week. We cannot accommodate for missed pickups and will consider it a donation to the farm if missed.
Heather and I talked on the phone about how they do their REKOs a little bit differently from the original model. The primary difference is that with most REKOs, farmers are advertising their wares by posting an offer of produce or flowers to the closed Facebook page for their ring, and customers order by commenting on the post. In Green Wagon Farm’s REKO Markets, producers link directly back to their website for online payment, so customers order and prepay through each producer’s website, instead of ordering through Facebook. Here is our interview.
Andrew Mefferd (AM): I know a little bit about Green Wagon Farm, but just for the record, could you give us a snapshot of your farm please?
Heather Anderson (HA): Green Wagon Farm started in 2010 [in Ada, Michigan]. We started on about three acres with a 30-member summer CSA. And now in 2020, 10 years later, we have 18 acres. We do 150 shares in the summer and a hundred year-round shares. And then we're at a couple of markets. One of them is year-round. Though not currently due to COVID, we do sell to some restaurants as well. So, we do a little bit of everything. Employee-wise we're at five paid employees year-round, full time. Plus, my husband and myself.
AM: How did you hear about REKO rings, and what did you decide to call yours?
HA: REKO Market is what we decided to call ours. [Ada REKO Market and Holland REKO Market, named after the towns where the pickups are.] We heard about it from [Swedish farmer] Richard Perkins at the Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference in January 2019. I wasn't actually at his talk, but my husband and a couple other employees were there.
They heard about it and we have been thinking about it since then. Actually, our CSA wholesale person, it was her job this winter before COVID to come up with a plan [to start a REKO Market] and make it happen for this year. And then with COVID we thought, "Okay, well, put the pedal to the floor. We’ve got to do it now." So yeah, we were on board with it and really loved the idea and were just dragging our feet.
Modifications to the original REKO system
HA: We don't really like the traditional model because I just don't think it's efficient to take orders off of Facebook comments. Managing that would take so much time. And what I've heard from people is they spend hours every week getting the orders. Two and a half to three hours is what I've heard a couple of people say, in talking to other REKOs around the world.
Some people are responding back to customers with, "Confirmed your order," or something like that. And then you can't download the orders [since in a “traditional” REKO customers order by posting], so then you still have to manually enter all the data into your own system.
We switched our whole CSA to online now. So, with 300 people a week who are putting an order in there, on top of our online store which is 50 or so a week; we already have so many orders, we needed it to work in our existing system.
Our initial idea was to create a one-page checkout for [all vendors at a single REKO Market] because we also really, really weighed the customer experience. And we’ve seen the feedback we thought we would. People will shop at six different farms and check out six different times. And look at six different minimums and six different order dates, but they really just want one.
So, we had to get it going quickly and the way we could do that was Local Food Marketplace. They have the perfect setup for it. We looked at lots of other platforms for our CSA. And that one was the only one. We also had REKO in mind when we were doing that.
Local Food Marketplace has a really good setup. And I think you can pay your vendors for products. So, if someone orders from me and one other farm, each item is paid to each farmer, which works out pretty well except that the minimum is going to be $250 a month to run that. You’ve got to start somewhere, and it was too cost prohibitive for the REKO Markets.
Then we realized that most people already have an online store. So now we just post links to everyone's online store [on Facebook], and it is somewhat of a bridge between being able to do one checkout page for everyone in the REKO Market. At least for farmers, they only have to manage whatever inventory system they already have. Right now, we just have links that producers post every week to their online stores, and customers still have to check out six times, but it's a little better on the back end at least.
AM: You mean, better than responding back and forth to orders made by Facebook comments, as in the original REKO model?
HA: Right. And the other thing too is then, when we clear out all the posts, there’s room for error. (Editor’s note: as mentioned in the June/July GFM story about REKO, most REKO rings that take orders via Facebook post clear the posts out once a week, so the feed doesn’t become cluttered with previous weeks’ posts.)
We clear the feed out at ten o'clock on the day of pickup. And then producers have to post the same day of pickup for the following week. But, what if you miss an order? It’s all deleted, and there's no way to get it back.
And it’s an issue for the customer too, if they were relying on the comments to keep track of what they had ordered. They might scroll back through and think, "Oh, which ones did I order from again?" and then it's all gone by the time pickup happens, it could cause confusion.
Starting and growing a REKO Market
AM: So how many different vendors are involved in your REKO?
HA: It's still growing quite a lot. There's probably 25 or so. We have two locations that we started and I would say there's at least a dozen at each one.
AM: I know you scrambled to get this going in response to COVID. So, when did you have your first REKO Market?
HA: Our first one was the first full week of May.
AM: And how did you find all those vendors for your REKO Markets? Did you reach out to your farmers market community or other farms that you knew in the area, or how did that go?
HA: There's a really strong farming community here. And we have this group that meets up together called the West Michigan Growers Group. We have a lot of connections through that. And so, it ended up, now at only ten years old, where we're one of the oldest organic farms around, unfortunately. Because a couple other ones ended up quitting farming or doing other things. So, we just have been around and also know a lot of farmers. But we did reach out to a lot of people through the group.
Initially we had reached out to some value-added producers. And we wondered if we had crossed into a gray area there, because it's a 100% producer market. The easiest thing would've been to just say farmers only or people who are raising animals and not doing any value added. So I don’t have to pick and choose. And I'm just bad at saying “no.”
The scale was something we thought about too, because we want it to be more established farmers. And we do have newer farmers too, but I want somebody who's doing this for a living or at least a chunk of their income. The reasoning is they're going to put a lot of marketing effort into it because the group provides shared marketing. People who are already established, they bring something to the group.
We did reach out to some value-added producers, like Love's Ice Cream was one of them. Field and Fire, they produce bread. And we have an herbal tea vendor.
Now we're getting requests for new vendors every week. And we're still adding people, but it's hard to decide who to let in. That's been one of the struggles. Because we ended up being the gatekeepers and we met with everyone a couple of times. There are some people in our group who have really strong opinions about everything and they're not running it, so it's kind of hard.
AM: Well having been part of several farmers markets myself, I know there are always politics. So are your farmers markets also going? I have to ask because I know some states shut their farmers markets down. And in some states they are still going. So are you doing farmers markets and REKO Markets at the same time?
HA: Yes, we are. And we have really strong support from one of our markets and we were kind of scared to ask the other market. So that was interesting.
AM: You mean because they would think that the REKO Market was competing with the farmers market?
HA: Yes, exactly. One person's viewpoint was, "Oh yeah, whatever we can do to get out community food. Whatever we can do to help our farmers sell more. Yes, yes, we're all for it. We're going to help you advertise, we'll stick your flyers up at the top."
And then the other one we approached about using as a location for pickup, it just took several weeks to get even an answer. And then it was a list of questions and it felt like they were very hesitant. And there was a lot of bureaucracy to go through.
How the REKO Market is going so far
AM: What is your REKO Market pickup like? Tell me about your pickup timeframe, and how you work that?
HA: So, the Ada REKO Market, which I think for everyone the feeling I'm getting is that one is doing a lot better. That community is very rich, and I don't know if it that has anything to do with it. For us, it's better, but for other vendors it's better too.
They don't have a very good farmers market either. It's not very well attended or supported. That one is only a 30-minute pickup window. It's 3:00 to 3:30 on Thursdays. It's really short. The other one is an hour and we already want to change it to 30 minutes.
Somebody was already doing an hour there, and they were just using the space to do their own order. And so that's why we kept an hour and we thought, "Okay, so we'll trial an hour in one place and we'll trial half an hour the other place." And half an hour to everyone feels a lot better. It's almost no effort to go.
AM: Yeah, get in and get out fast. Hit it and quit it.
HA: Right. So that feels pretty good. I haven't heard of longer pickup times than an hour. When we did our research, it seems like a lot of the ones in Europe had increased to an hour just for COVID. But it seems like the more established ones have changed their pickup to 20-minute windows by last name, for a total of an hour long.
AM: How is that working out for people? Are they pretty good about showing up within that half an hour window and getting their stuff?
HA: Yes. And I told vendors, "If you can, do not come earlier." People are there five, maybe ten minutes early, and I think almost everyone is gone within five minutes of the end time.
So it really is in and out, which is good. That's what we wanted. And five minutes to the end or so, we'll call anyone who hasn't picked up and say, "We're about to leave."
AM: Was starting the REKO more about making up for lost markets from the restaurants and such, or more because to serve the demand for local food?
HA: A little bit of everything. We already were excited about it, and planning on doing it eventually. There’s definitely a lot of demand for local food. Our CSA sold out like crazy and we thought, "Okay, let's keep expanding of the market.” And, we lost our restaurants.
So we were not saying, "Oh, REKO's going to make up all our restaurants." We just redistributed across the board. And this is just one of the outlets that we thought would go well.
AM: Have you ramped up production? I know you said your CSA sold out and now you've added these other things.
HA: Oh yes. We did increase. We ripped up driveways to try to get more room. We opened a new section of ground. We thought, "Okay, where else can we fit things?"
We scrapped certain beds that I thought didn’t look good. Or they might do okay, but we could get more food out of some other planting. So yes, we're doing it all.
Yes, and Caleb has handled it so well. He's our field manager. He's been around for six years and it was a lot for us to ask of him. I forget when we started talking about this. In April? I think that's when we decided to add more CSA, 50 more CSA members. We normally just do a hundred in the summer. And so we asked him to increase for that.
Then we asked him to increase again, just because of increased demand. And he did a tremendous job, rearranging and looking at what we could do and helping us with projections and saying, "Yeah, we can do it or no, we can't." So yes, kudos to him.
AM: So how are the REKO Markets working out? I know you've only been doing it for a little over a month now. I want to know if you have any feedback, or from all these other vendors you're working with too?
HA: I think it's going well. We’re getting positive overall feedback. The one location is doing, as I think I mentioned, a lot worse than the other and I haven't figured out why. Because theoretically there are way more people who live there. They had their market shut down for longer. Through the winter they have a year-round market and they shut it for a few weeks that it normally would have been open.
We initially had tons of press. We somehow got about a hundred press contacts and sent out a press release, and it went really well. I think it was shown in maybe six or ten different States. So that really helped. We definitely saw a lot of growth in the members on the Facebook pages. So it was a good start. But then it hasn't been awesome and we just can't figure out why.
On social media, we're basically running the group. We're the admin. We're taking in new vendors as well as clearing the Facebook posts. And then we do have an Instagram account that we post stories to while we're at pickup. And then we do one post a week where we just say all the vendors that are going to be there so they're all in one place. Because that was a complaint we kept getting, having to scroll through the page to see everyone.
And it is annoying. I've experienced it. And a lot of other people have said this too, but they'll pull the REKO page up, mostly on their mobile devices and they can't see all the posts. Like just yesterday one of the vendors called me and she could see it on her computer and her other posts didn't show up on her iPad and after refreshing it still didn't show up. So that is a concern.
The pickups go well. We haven't really had any issues from vendors, or rule violations. So that's been good. We do require vendors to wear a mask and have a sign [for their business by their vehicle, so customers can tell who is who] at pickup. Those are the only two things.
Overall, we're happy with it. I was really excited to get the support from a lot of different farms. Because we were ready to do it by ourselves, if nobody else wanted to join. But yes, it's been going really well.
AM: So is it too early to tell if you're going to keep doing the REKO Market after COVID?
HA: We like it. Our plan from the beginning was to start it with the intention that this is like a market and we're going to put our all into it. And so we made that known to other vendors because we want them to be serious about it, right?
And we said that at our pickups too. Like, yes, we would love for you to help us right now, but we also want to continue after things get back to normal. So, it was sort of like COVID was our selling point, but we did mention that we want to keep doing it too.
And I think we will. So far, for one of the markets, we've hit our minimum. And I would say it's above our minimum for delivery. It's still doing well.
AM: I'm curious, did you come up with a dollar value beforehand, that you would have to make at each REKO Market to make it worth it? Like, "Well, we really need to do a $1,000 per REKO to make it this worth it?"
HA: We were going to go either way. One week for Holland we went for $50. We drove an hour, sat an hour, and drove back for $50. So that was pretty darn bad. But yeah, I can share our numbers with you. So Holland has been around $150. And we have to at least make that if we're going to be driving. You better make that much.
For Holland, in our planning we thought it was going to be higher than Ada. We were hoping for $300 a week and we thought we could maybe get $700 in orders. Now Ada, we started around $300. I think it was maybe $350 the first week. And our highest week has been almost $550. So it's been really interesting because we had lower expectations for Ada. So I don't have a rhyme or a reason other than we want to be selling at least $100 an hour.
I'm going to make it work or keep it going. But I know that probably everyone is in that boat based on the feedback we've gotten. But vendors are like, "Yeah, it could be better." And they're going to make it work. But eventually people are going to stop doing that. So that's why we're trying to figure out what to do now.
AM: So with all those different vendors, do you have an assortment of veggies, flowers, meat and other things?
HA: Yes. Even the first week I felt pretty good about the assortment. There are three vegetable people at Holland and we're the only one at Ada right now. So honestly I would prefer to have another vegetable vendor at Ada even though they'd be competition. We now have a bakery at each one.
There are some value-added products like ice cream that go to both. There's a tea vendor that goes to both. We just had a cut flower grower sign up. So yes, I feel like it's a good mix.
AM: Having a good assortment must help the whole market just because people know they can do one stop shopping.
HA: Yes. There are vendors who sell eggs and fish. I forgot to mention that. They just started. So it's really good, yes.
I think we handle our Facebook admin differently as well. We make each farmer an admin and then we set the page so that only admins can post. So the public doesn't have the option to post. And we also ask the public not to comment. Which I think other groups do too. You have to message vendors for questions. It's the way we've handled it. So that you first have to join [the closed Facebook group].
If you're a farmer, you have to join with your personal page. Then you can link your business page. We make you an admin. And then you can post. That was one way to prevent the public from posting.
AM: Oh, that's interesting. With that setup, do they even have the option to post?
HA: I don't think so. You have to be an admin.
AM: That's the point of making it an admins only. Okay.
Yes, I'm pretty optimistic that REKO could be a cog that's going to fit in there with farmers markets and CSAs and all the local wholesaling and restaurants and stuff like that to be part of the local food scene. Because, maybe some people who aren’t open to a CSA, maybe they'll go to the farmers market. Maybe if a CSA is too much commitment, and they don’t want to go to the farmers market, some of those people will like the pre-order aspect of a REKO Market. It's a way to reach some different people than you're reaching through the more established channels.
Andrew Mefferd is the Editor of Growing for Market. He farms in Maine.